Thursday, July 20, 2017

Herbie Nichols Honored In DownBeat Hall of Fame

Herbie Nichols recording of The Third World

"It's about time" was a common comment on Facebook regarding the selection of Herbie Nichols to DownBeat's Hall of Fame. Nichols was one of three selected by the Veterans Committee (the others being Eubie Blake and George Gershwin) and it is gratifying that he is receiving such recognition so long after his early death from leukemia in 1963 at the age of 44.

Perhaps at the time of his passing, he was perhaps unfairly compared to his friend Thelonious Monk. I became acquainted with his story from the chapter devoted to him in A.B. Spellman's classic book,Four Lives in the Bebop Business. Recently we are fortunate that Mark Miller wrote a full biography of Nichols, Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist's Life

Herbie Nichols recording of Lady Sings the Blues.

He was born in San Juan Hill area of Manhattan and grew up in Harlem. Wikipedia succintly observes  that "During much of his life he took work as a Dixieland musician while working on the more adventurous kind of jazz he preferred, and he is best known today for these highly original compositions, program music that combines bop, Dixieland, and music from the Caribbean with harmonies derived from Erik Satie and Béla Bartók." 

The quirkiness of his compositions perhaps leads to superficial comparisons to Monk. He became friends of Monk while working at Minton's, although he was not fond of the competitiveness of that venue. He became friends of Monk then and was also a journalist who was perhaps the first to write about Monk.

Herbie Nichols playing 2300 Skidoo.

After serving in the Military during World War II, he pursued his career as a composer and pianist. Mary Lou Williams was the first to record his compositions, and after "several years of to persuade Alfred Lion at Blue Note Records to sign him up, he finally recorded some of his compositions for the label in 1955 and 1956, some of which were not issued until the 1980s. His tune Serenade had lyrics added, and as Lady Sings the Blues became firmly identified with Billie Holiday. In 1957 he recorded his last album for Bethlehem Records." His Blue Note Records are compiled on The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Herbie Nichols, and his Bethlehem recordings available on Love, Gloom, Cash, Love.

His efforts to work as a modern musician were limited, and as noted he often had to play Dixieland, which is where he met Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd, both who were champions of his music after his passing and who were involved in various recordings of his compositions, including a number that were not recorded during his life. Miller notes his music was viewed by his contemporaries as a bit out and also his straight personality contributed to him being outside the jazz scene at the time. 

Misha Mingelberg is heard leading a group playing Herbie Nichols music.

Spellman's chapter is well worth reading nearly five decades later and Miller's biography fleshes out his remarkable, if tragic, life. A sampling of his recordings and an interview with Miller discusses his life and music is on an archived radio broadcast,

In 2015, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art presented the US Army Blues to celebrate the music of Herbie Nichols. A couple days later, the US army Blues presented the same program. This second performance was broadcast on video, which is available on youtube. They have presented the Music of Herbie Nichols additional times as well. in 2019, it is likely the Take 5 series held at the Museum of American Art will have another celebration of Herbie Nichols and his music.

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